P.D. James and Ruth Rendell on crime writing after Agatha Christie

JAMES: I suppose the question we get asked most often by other people is ‘Why crime?’, and in a way that ties up with when we began writing. Was your first book crime? You wrote some short stories before you were published, didn’t you?

RENDELL: You remember correctly. I wrote a lot of short stories, and I sent them to magazines and they were not accepted. Then I began to write full-length fiction. Some I didn’t finish, some I did. I wrote three, one of which – after some years of this – I sent to a publisher. It was not  a crime novel – it wasn’t even particularly suspenseful: I suppose you would call it a comedy of matters. They did not take it, but they quite liked it, and they asked me if I’d done anything else, and I had: I’d done the first Wexford. I’d done it without any serious intent – and I just thought well, I want to see if I can do this, for fun. I’d read a lot of crime fiction, and I had an idea which I think was very daring for the time, and they took it and it was published in 1964. I think that was nearly the same year as your first book.

JAMES: Very close: ’62. They accepted it in ’60, but they had too many books on the fiction list, so they postponed it for a year, which seemed an eternity, but actually was in some ways quite lucky for me, because it meant I could get on with number two in the certainty they would publish number one.

RENDELL: There’s a good story about it came to be published.

JAMES: I was spending a weekend with friends, and met an actor called Miles Malleson, and he gave me the name of his agent, Elaine Greene, who took me on. She went to dinner at All Souls and sat next to Charles Monteith, who was a director of Faber & Faber. Their crime writer had just died – he was Cyril Hare, who wrote very elegant detective stories set in the world of the law, which I still very much enjoy – and Charles Monteith said, ‘We shall be looking for another one.’ So Elaine replied, ‘I’ve found one.’  She sent him the manuscript – and he accepted it, so I was very lucky. I have a huge admiration for people who continue to write after rejection. I think that takes a lot of courage. You must have known in the end you were going to be accepted – you knew you could do it, presumably.

RENDELL: I didn’t, actually. I don’t think I wrote with that in view – I wrote because I wanted to write so much. But with you, I think your first novel was a very accomplished piece of work: I think it would have been very surprising if it had been rejected. Cover Her Face – a very good title: The Duchess of Malfi. And while you were waiting for that to be published you were writing your second – which one was that?

JAMES: A Mind to Murder. I was then working in the health service, in charge of five psychiatric units. It’s set in a psychiatric outpatient department. I couldn’t have done it without the knowledge I gained in my job.

So for both of us the first published novel was a detective story, and though you have branched out into a very different form of fiction, you still write them. Why do we enjoy writing that form, rather than what people describe for some reason or other as ‘mainstream fiction’?

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